Film-Philosophy

Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 6 No. 43, November 2002

 

 

Kenneth Rufo

 

Obscenity with a View

Baudrillard's _Revenge of the Crystal_ and Film Studies

 

 

Jean Baudrillard

_Revenge of the Crystal: Selected Writings on the Modern Object and its Destiny, 1968-1983_

London: Pluto Press, 1999

ISBN: 0-7453-1443-0

198 pp.

 

Jean Baudrillard stands amidst a strange scene in contemporary thinking: largely ignored or lamented by 'serious' intellectuals, yet embraced by those yearning for the cutting edge of the philosophically hip. While independent and European filmmakers produce documentaries about Jacques Derrida and Pierre Bourdieu, Hollywood powerhouses instead see in Baudrillard's thought the kernel for multi-billion dollar cinematic epics. From the real to the reel, Baudrillard has experienced a rather wide dissemination.

 

But who is this bizarre figure? Dubbed a prophet, a priest, and a nihilist, Baudrillard seems paradoxically out of place and dead on target in describing the contemporary social and political scene. His thesis, in a nutshell: reality has left the building. Maybe we had it once, or more accurately, maybe we knew how to appreciate it. But with the ascendancy of modern technology, the apotheosis of the object and objectivity, and the media saturation of the West, we have (literally) 'realized' everything, and in so doing we have giddily paved over reality in the process. Today's reality is instead the reality of the object, that technological/scientific/theoretical conceit that defines us as subjects, from clothes and computers to clones and Keynesian economics.

 

So what can we say of the role of film and cinema in Baudrillard's thought? The question is actually quite difficult to resolve. Baudrillard has been quite clear about his distaste for television, has lamented the nature of contemporary radio, and has complained about the dissolution of theatre into repetition and simulation. The temptation thus exists, and perhaps not incorrectly, to see film as another emblematic product of a hyperreal malaise. But really engaging Baudrillard's work means more than mere dismissal, and any assessment of film requires that one not reject the entirety of the medium simply because of the many bad apples still floating around in the celluloid barrel. Instead, I believe that any assessment of cinema using Baudrillard requires an historical investigation of the scene of the object and the disappearance of the real. It is here that Pluto Classic's recent publication of Baudrillard's _Revenge of the Crystal_ can play a pivotal role.

 

The selections that comprise the book will not interest everyone, even if they should. Enough negativity exists towards Baudrillard as a thinker or scholar that academics seem especially reticent to invoke his name as anything other than a parenthetical specter. Those in the middle of the divide (Steven Best and Douglas Kellner seem apt examples) often frown at Baudrillard's more recent meanderings, even as they laud his initial post-Marxist reformations. For those who find that such a middle ground provides good grazing, _Revenge of the Crystal_ has much to offer, even if that offering problematizes any clean break between Marxist Baudrillard and his more nefarious twin (McGehee and Siegel's _Suture_, anyone?). Included in the book are five excerpts, chapters from texts published between 1968 and 1983, which chart (loosely) the role and nature of the object as a semiotic device: its role in structuring social identity; its impact on theorizing the Marxist problematics of production and consumption; its role in the formulation of sex and desire; its relationship with mass media culture; and its transformative influence on the social and political scenes. These essays, while not indicative of Baudrillard's more recent work, and despite their age, remain particularly robust with insight. The selections provide some indications as to the evolution of Baudrillard's thought, both within and beyond the chosen period of time, and are thus quite useful for those looking for an entry point into his work.

 

Those interested in philosophy and/or sociology in general will no doubt find these five essays intriguing, but for the purposes of this review, in the specific context of film and philosophy, the combination of these essays with an introductory interview (conducted by Guy Bellavance), provides the real book bang for the buck. In the interview, Baudrillard discusses many of the motivations that animate his thought in general, and the issues that provoked his 1983 _Fatal Strategies_ in particular, with a heavy emphasis on the current state of art, theatre, and aesthetics. Particularly close attention should be paid to the discussion of obscenity, and the scene of representation, which has, I believe, the most to tell us about Baudrillard's potential utility for film criticism. I will spend the remainder of the review discussing these terms in an attempt to hint at their potential value for thinking film.

 

As both the book's last chapter and opening interview make clear, Baudrillard has 'realized' that the frightening proliferation of the object has led to a sort of mass implosion. The cultural, the social, the political, the industrial, the aesthetic -- these spheres, once able to be distinguished conceptually, have bled into each other; a sort of sociological cross-pollination. No conceptual sphere can lay claim to producing a meaning or inventing a value not already implicated and imbricated by its objective relations. This somewhat catastrophic notion is much more complex than it first appears. Rather than simply pronouncing a particular film (say Wenders's _Until the End of the World_) as necessarily laden with political implications -- something film criticism has done largely since the advent of film -- Baudrillard's implosion means that such a pronouncement is, today, ultimately meaningless. Films still have meanings, lots and lots of meanings. They contain social messages, political directives, cultural mappings, ad nauseam. The point is that today everything, film and not film, art and not art, has those meanings, which is, for Baudrillard, tantamount to saying that there is no such thing as a political or cultural meaning per se. (For a recent and poignant illustration, think _Collateral Damage_ meets 9/11, the common reaction that the World Trade Center collapse 'looks like a movie', and the strange heroism of Dr Mark Heath who ran into the thick fog left after the Towers collapse, video camera firmly in hand, to offer medical assistance.) Every meaning, every event, has been realized in excess, and in so doing, dissolved itself of any reality. This excess is the core of what Baudrillard terms 'obscenity', literally the 'against-scene' that makes unthinkable the conditions necessary for meaning to arise. Baudrillard notes, foreshadowing his most famous work: 'Many things are obscene because they have too much meaning, because they occupy too much space. They thus attain an exorbitant representation of the truth, that is to say the apogee of simulation' (187).

 

I have started from the negative (is there any other way?) of obscenity, that which works against the scene of representation, against the possibility of seduction and aesthetics. The scene will have to wait. Instead, we must first consider a truly profound implication of this implosion, one that will no doubt seem abhorrent to some academics and critics: that there is no longer a distinction between theory as an object and the object of critique; the same implosion is at work between theory and criticism as between all other spheres of value and meaning. As such, theory and criticism impact each other rather profoundly, with a sort of radical reflexivity, and one must remain open to the possibility that the object of film provides as much critical inspiration as does a critical-theoretical oeuvre, Baudrillard included. He writes: 'We are all actors, all spectators, there is no more scene, the scene is everywhere, there is no more rule, everyone acts out their own drama, improvises their own phantasms' (192). What phantasms do we hold to as critics? What dramas do we enact without intention, without even the prospect of a seduction? Can we even begin to think what it would be like, not to rethink a film through a psychoanalytic lens, but rather to rethink psychoanalysis through a film? Is it possible that criticism functions, all too often, as the recursive play of the object, a sort of revenge upon the subject?

 

Perhaps. But perhaps, and here is the aporia within Baudrillard's thought, such a seduction is necessary if meaning is to be rescued from itself: 'For something to have meaning, there must be a scene; and for a scene to exist, there must be illusion, a minimum of illusion, of imaginary movement, of challenge to the real, one which transports you, seduces you, revolts you' (194). The scene of representation, which remains an ill-defined horizon within Baudrillard's thought, comes about outside of the realm of thinking and of calculation that the modern investment of meaning requires. The real -- that hard kernel upon which models and meanings and objects ultimately flounder, where the imaginary no longer animates and establishes the objective relations between the distal and the subjective -- survives precisely because meaning (or rather its functional impossibility) cannot be foreclosed. This is the scene of representation that makes film theory thinkable even as it forces a massive revision; cinema can no longer be seen as the symbolic manifestation of material realities/ideals, but rather as the potential of seduction. The scene of the film thus understood, 'is about the possibility of creating a space where things have the capacity to transform themselves, to perform in a different way, and not in terms of their objective purpose . . . the scene is about the arbitrary' (29).

 

Here then, are the stakes: on one hand, the meaning of a cinematic object (whic